Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Posthumous Memoirs of His Own Time,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), 9:174-184


[page 174, continued:]


[Southern Literary Messenger, October, 1836.]

THE “Memoirs of My Own Times” were published in 1815. They excited the greatest commotion; and if we are to believe the Baronet, no literary work ever procured for its author “a more numerous list of powerful and inveterate enemies.” The queen, the regent, and the princesses of the royal family disliked the portrait drawn of George the Third, which every reasonable person will allow to be by no means a caricature. They disapproved too, of the somewhat free comments on the peace of 1763, and were highly incensed at certain personal disclosures in regard to the king. The first Lord of the Treasury, son of Charles [page 175:] Jenkinson, was offended at the “just and impartial” character given his father. The partisans, respectively, of Pitt and Fox, arose in arms at what they considered the gross abuse of their leaders. The relatives of Lord North were enraged at the account of his junction with Fox in 1783, notwithstanding the Baronet himself considers that “he had done justice to that most accomplished and amiable nobleman.” But this was not all. The Earl of Bute would not be appeased. The Marquis of Lansdowne spoke of a prosecution in the court of King's Bench on account of the reflections (unavoidable, we are told) made on the resignation of the Earl of Shelburne. The “Quarterly Review” in an article written, we are assured, by “men” in official situations[[,]] held the “Memoirs” up to general reprobation as an “imbecile and immoral work,” while the “Edinburg” joined in the hue and cry with still greater virulence, and even more disgusting personal abuse. Lastly, and much more than all to the purpose, Count Woronzow, in consequence of the mention made of him by the Baronet, in his relation of the circumstances connected with the marriage of the Princess Royal to the late Duke of Wurtemberg, instituted a prosecution, in order to vindicate his own official diplomatic conduct. Garrow, then Attorney-General, was retained for the prosecution, and it is to be observed that, passing over in few words the particular passage for which the suit was commenced, he dwelt with the greatest severity against the “Memoirs” at large. The disposition of the government towards the defendant may, however, be fully estimated by the fact, that although the court repeatedly disclaimed having authorized the Attorney-General to call for a vindictive judgment, declaring his sole object to be the [page 176:] clearing up of his own character; and although the Baronet, for an offence which he declared to be unintentional, made at once the most ample, prompt and public apology, still the vindictive judgment of six months imprisonment, and a fine of five hundred pounds, was ordered into execution, a part of the imprisonment actually carried into effect, and the fine remitted only through the most energetic and persevering exertions of Woronzow himself. “Such,” says the author of the Memoirs, “was the combination of assailants which my inflexible regard to truth assembled from the most opposite quarters.” These clamors and difficulties, however, he considered as more than sufficiently counterbalanced by the testimony, now first communicated to the world, of the late Sir George Osborn — a testimony indeed which should be considered of authority. This gentleman, a near relative of Lord North's, was of ancient descent, high character, and large property; and from 1775, until the king's final loss of reason, was one of the grooms of his bed-chamber. In a letter to the Baronet shortly after his commitment to the King's Bench, he thus writes: “I have your first here, and have perused it again with much attention. I pledge my name that I personally know nine parts out of ten of your anecdotes to be perfectly correct. You are imprisoned for giving to future ages a perfect picture of our time, and as interesting as Clarendon.” For ourselves, we had as soon depend upon the character here given of the “Memoirs” as upon that more highly colored portrait of them painted by the Attorney-General.

Thus persecuted, the Baronet took a lesson from experience, and declined to publish the work now before us during his life-time. He adopted also the [page 177:] necessary measures to guard against its issue during the life-time of George the Fourth. In so doing, he has, of course, secured his own personal convenience, but the delay has deprived his reminiscences of that cotemporary interest which is the chief seasoning of all similar works. Still the Baronet's pages will excite no ordinary attention, and will be read with unusual profit and pleasure. The book may be regarded as a series of parliamentary sketches, in which are introduced, at random, a thousand other subjects either connected or unconnected with the debates — such as historical notices of the measures introduced, — personal anecdotes and delineations of the speakers — political facts and inferences — attempts at explaining the hidden motives of ministers or their agents — rumors of the day — and remarks upon public events or characters abroad. The Baronet is sadly given to scandal, and is peculiarly piquant in the indulgence of his propensity. At the same time there should be no doubt (for there assuredly is no reason for doubting) that he is fully in earnest in every word he says, and implicitly relies in the truth of his own narrative. The lighter portions of his book, therefore, have all the merit of vraisemblance, as well as of haut goût. His style is occasionally very minute and prosy — but not when he has a subject to his fancy. He is then a brilliant and vivid writer, as he is at all times a sagacious one. He has a happy manner, when warmed with an important idea, of presenting only its characteristic features to the view — leaving in a proper shadow points of minor effect. The reader is thus frequently astonished at finding himself fully possessed of a subject about which very little has been said.

Among the chief characters that figure in the “Memoirs,” [page 178:] and concerning each of whom the Baronet has a world of pithy anecdote, we note Pitt, Burke, Fox, Sheridan, Erskine, Louis the Sixteenth, George the Third, the Queen and royal family, Sir James Lowther, Lord Chesterfield, the late Marquis of Abercorn (John James Hamilton,) Lady Payne (Mademoiselle de Kelbel,) Lord North, Sir Philip Francis the reputed author of Junius, Sir William Draper the defeated antagonist of that writer, George Rose, (the indefatigable and faithful factotum of Pitt,) the Duke of Queensbury, Harry Dundas, Hastings with his agent Major Scott, Lord Eldon, Grey, Sidmouth, Thurlow, the Marquis of Lansdowne, Lord Liverpool, Marie Antoinette, the Duchess of Devonshire, the Duchess of Gordon, and (we should not have forgotten him) the late dirty Duke of Norfolk, then Earl of Surrey. Of this illustrious personage a laughable account is given. On one occasion — at a great whig dinner at the Crown and Anchor, (in February 1798, while all England was threatened with revolution, and when Ireland was on the brink of open rebellion,) his Grace, inspired as usual with wine, was fool enough to drink “The sovereign majesty of the people.” “Assuredly,” says the Baronet drolly enough, “it was not in the ‘Bill of Rights,’ nor in the principles on which reposes the revolution of 1688, that the Duke could discover any mention of such an attribute of the people. Their liberties and franchises are there enumerated; but their majesty was neither recognized or imagined by those persons who were foremost in expelling James the Second.” His Grace accompanied the toast with some pithy observations relating to “the two thousand persons who, under General Washington, first procured reform and liberty for the thirteen American colonies.” Of course it is not [page 179:] very singular that his remarks were considered as savoring of sedition. Growing sober, next morning, he became apprehensive of having proceeded too far. Accordingly, a day or two afterwards, hearing that his words had excited much wrath at St. James's, he waited on the Duke of York with an excuse and an apology, concluding with a request that, in the event of invasion, his regiment of militia might be assigned the post of duty. His Royal Highness listened to him with much attention, and assured him that his desire should be made known to the king — breaking off the conversation abruptly, however, with “Apropos, my lord, have you seen Blue-Beard?” (the popular pantomine of the day.) In two days after this interview the “dirty Duke” received his dismission both from the lord-lieutenancy and from his regiment.

There are several connected narrations of some length and great interest in the volume before us. One of these concerns the noted Westminster election, when the charms and address of the Duchess of Devonshire aided Fox so largely in defeating the governmental influence — another the accusations of Hastings and Impey — another the debates on the Regency Bill. The “Diamond Necklace” affair, in which Madame de la Motte performed so important a part, is related clearly and pointedly, but with some little diffuseness. We abridge the Baronet's account of this extraordinary matter.

Prince Louis de Rohan, second brother of the Duke de Montbazon, was fifty-one years of age at the epoch in question. He was a prelate of elegant manners, of restless ambition, and of talents, although ill-regulated. It appears that he was credulous and easily duped by the designing. Previous to his attainment of the episcopal [page 180:] dignity, and while only coadjutor of Strasburg, he had been employed in diplomacy, and acted, during a considerable time, as Ambassador from the Court of France at Vienna, in the reign of Maria Theresa. Returning home, he attempted to reach the ministerial situation left vacant by Maurepas. But Louis the Sixteenth had imbibed strong prejudices against hin, and the queen held him in still greater aversion. Yet he was resolutely bent upon acquiring her favor, and indeed entertained, it seems, the hope of rendering himself personally acceptable to her. At this time she was very beautiful, loved admiration, was accessible to flattery, and not yet thirteen years of age.

Among the numerous individuals who then frequented Versailles with the view of advancing their fortune, was Mademoiselle de la Valois. She became an object of royal notice, through the accidental discovery of her descent from Henry the Second, by one of his mistresses, St. Renny, a Piedmontese lady of noble birth. A small pension was bestowed on her, and she soon afterwards married a gentleman of the name of La Motte, one of the Count de Provence's body guards. His duties retaining him at Versailles near the person of the Count, Madame de la Motte became well known to the Cardinal de Rohan, whose character she appears to have studied with great attention. She herself was totally devoid of moral principle, and her habits of expense induced her to resort to the most desperate expedients for recruiting her finances. About this time, one Boehmer, a German jeweller well known at the court of France, had in possession a most costly diamond necklace, valued at near seventy thousand pounds sterling, and obtained permission to exhibit it to her majesty. The queen, [page 181:] however, declined buying it. Madame de la Motte receiving information of the fact, resolved to fabricate a letter from the queen to herself authorizing her to make the purchase. In this letter Marie Antoinette was made to express a determination of taking the necklace at a certain indicated price — under the positive reserve, however, that the matter should remain a profound secret, and that Boehmer would agree to receive his payment by instalments, in notes under her own hand, drawn on her treasurer at stipulated periods.

Furnished with this authority, Madame de la Motte repaired to the Cardinal de Rohan. Submitting to him, as if in confidence, the queen's pretended letter, she dwelt on the excellent opportunity which then presented itself to him, of acquiring her majesty's favor. She urged him to see Boehmer, and to assure him of the queen's desire — the proof of which lay before him. The Cardinal, however credulous, refused to embark in the affair, without receiving from Marie's own mouth the requisite authority. Madame de la Motte had foreseen this impediment and already provided against it. There lived at that time in Paris an actress, one Mademoiselle D’Oliva, who in her figure bore great resemblance to the queen. This lady they bribed to personate her majesty — asserting that a frolic only was intended.

Matters being thus arranged, Madame de la Motte acquainted the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette felt the propriety of his eminence's scruples, and with a view of removing them, and at the same time of testifying her sense of his services, had resolved to grant him an interview in the gardens of Versailles — but that certain precautions must be adopted lest the transaction should come to the knowledge of the king. With this end [page 182:] the Cardinal was told her majesty had fixed upon a retired and shady spot, to which she could repair muffled up in such a manner as to elude notice. “The interview,” Madame de la Motte added, “must be very short, and the queen resolutely refuses to speak a single word lest she may be overheard.” Instead of verbally authorizing De Rohan to pledge her authority to Boehmer, it was therefore settled that she hold in her hand a flower, which, on the Cardinal's approaching her, she would immediately extend to him as a mark of her approval.

This blundering plot, we are told, succeeded. Mademoiselle D’Oliva personated the queen à merveille, and the Cardinal, blinded by love and ambition, was thoroughly duped. Convinced that he had now received an unquestionable assurance of Marie Antoinette's approbation, he no longer hesitated to pledge himself to Boehmer.

A deduction of above eight thousand pounds on the price demanded, having been procured from him, promissory notes for the remainder, exceeding sixty thousand pounds, drawn and signed in the queen's name, payable at various periods by her treasurer, were delivered to the jeweller by Madame de la Motte. She then received from him the necklace. Her husband having obtained leave of absence, under the pretence of visiting the place of his nativity, carried off the diamonds, and, arriving safe in London, disposed of some of the finest stones among the dealers of that city. Madame de la Motte herself, we cannot exactly understand why, remained at Paris. The Cardinal, also, continued in unsuspecting security at court. But the day arriving when her majesty's first promissory note became due, the fraud was of course discovered. As [page 183:] soon as the part which de Rohan had performed in it was fully ascertained, the whole matter was laid by her majesty before the king. Louis, after consulting with some of his ministers, finally determined upon the Cardinal's arrest. “Such an event,” says our author, “taking place in the person of a member of the Sacred College, an ecclesiastic of the highest birth and greatest connections, related through the kings of Navarre to the sovereign himself, and grand almoner of France, might well excite universal amazement. Since the arrest of Foucquet, superintendant of the finances, by Louis the Fourteenth, in 1661, no similar act of royal authority had been performed: for we cannot justly compare with it the seizure and imprisonment of the Duke of Maine in 1718, by order of the Regent Duke of Orleans. The Cardinal de Rohan's crime was private and personal, wholly unconnected with the state, though affecting the person and character of the queen. He was conducted to the Bastile, invariably maintaining that he had acted throughout the whole business with the purest intentions; always conceiving that he was authorized by her majesty, and was doing her a pleasure. Madame de la Motte, Mademoiselle D’Oliva, and some other suspected individuals were also conveyed to the same fortress. Notwithstanding the queen's evident innocence in this singular robbery, a numerous class of Parisians either believed or affected to believe her implicated in the guilt of the whole transaction.

This account is followed up by the relation of a private and personal adventure of the Baronet, of the most romantic and altogether extraordinary character. He gives the detailed narrative of a plot, in which he acted a conspicuous part as secret agent, for the restoration of the imprisoned queen Caroline Matilda of [page 184:] Denmark, and to which George the Third had given his approbation and promised his assistance. Had this revolution been carried into effect it would have brought about the most important changes in the political aspect of the north of Europe. The sudden death of the queen put an end to the attempt, however, just when all preparations were completed, and success was beyond a reasonable doubt. In the spring of 1784, a similar exertion placed the young prince royal, then only sixteen years of age, in possession of the Regency, which his mother's death alone prevented her from attaining in 1775. After the queen's decease, some of her most active friends interested themselves with George the Third to procure the Baronet a proper remuneration for his services. For nearly six years, however, the attempt was unsuccessful. The final result is thus related by the author himself.

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The volume concludes with an appendix embodying a variety of correspondence in relation to this singular matter, under the heading of “Letters and Papers respecting the Queen of Denmark.” Altogether, these “Posthumous Memoirs” afford a rich fund of entertainment — and in especial to the lovers of political gossip we most heartily recommend their perusal.





[S:1 - JAH09, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Posthumous Memoirs of His Own Time)